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I smell, you smell (but we all smell different)

October 14, 2009 |  4:56 pm

There's a good chance every person on this planet has an odor all his or her own -- but our inferior human noses aren't up to the task of discerning the subtle differences. So scientists are hard at work trying to come up with ways to measure them -- to create banks of "odorprints," if you like.

Check out "You Smell," an article at Chemical & Engineering News, for all kinds of luscious details about this field of science. The story, by science writer Ivan Amato, starts with a description of a certain freezer at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, where some of these researchers, among them George Preti, toil away:

"His freezer is brimming with glass jars, ziplock plastic bags, and test tubes charged with swabs of sweat and skin secretions, fabric-captured breath, and urine extracts. The freezer is a cryogenic curio of human emanation, and if you open it, it stinks to high heaven. Running away or slamming the door shut are about the only options you consider."

Among the interesting details in the article:

-- Scientists see all kinds of potential applications for this science, some medical (sniffing out diseases the way dogs sometimes can) and others a tad Big-Brother-y:lie detection and odor-collecting surveillance devices at airports.

-- Different parts of our bodies -- underarms, genitals, breath, etc -- produce different odors based on the bacteria that reside there and the different glands in the area, among other things. Breath and urine are more likely to smell differently based on diet, so scientists are more interested -- at least for your basic odor print -- in the chemicals that waft from other body areas. Underarm seems to be the area most frequently chosen for study.

-- There are scores of different chemicals that make up the scents we emit -- acids, alcohols, aldehydes, hydrocarbons, esters and more -- and it's the pattern of these, how much of this one, how much of that one, that are likely to give each individual his or own unique odor. In other words, it's not as if we all have our own individual "smell" molecule.

-- The East German Secret Police (the Stasi) actually tried to sneakily collect odor of different citizens by having them sit on special cushions.

This and much more in the article: Check it out!

And for an earlier but still very fascinating look at another class of odors -- ones human beings find disgusting -- take a read of an article by L.A. Times staffer Aaron Zitner.

-- Rosie Mestel

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